The world is rapidly aging. According to Foreign Policy magazine, the share of the population 60 and older will nearly double to 21.5 percent by 2050, from 12.3 percent today. Aging populations will surge in Japan, South Korea, Germany, China, and the United States. The “‘grey tsunami’ will the defining feature of the 21st century.” By 2050, the median age in the U.S. it will be 42, while the global median will be 36. And the number of dependent people in America will also skyrocket from 49 for every 100 people of working age to 66.
At the Environments for Aging (EFA) conference in Las Vegas, which brought together senior living developers, architects, and landscape architects, along with physicians and caregivers, Debra Levin, president of the Center for Health Design, said 10,000 baby boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) will turn 65 every day for the next decade. And these boomers have “different expectations about how and where they will age” than their parents, the World War I-era “silent” generation. Furthermore, these boomers are now living longer and want more control over their last years. They want more affordable solutions than increasingly expensive residential home care. The entire senior care industry will need to change to meet their needs and demands.
Dr. Roger Landry, author of Live Long, Die Short: A Guide to Authentic Health and Successful Aging, said “we can’t afford to make mistakes as the baby boomers age.” It’s important to promote “successful aging” strategies that can stave off long, slow declines due to illness, in favor of maintaining high levels of performance before a quick drop off at the end. The goal is to “die young as late as possible.”
He said all our cognitive performance will eventually drop after a long plateau that lasts from our 30s through out 60s. That decline is usually a “painful, degrading, and expensive experience.” But we can dramatically shorten the decline by using some smart approaches. About 70 percent of our ability to avoid the awful extended decline is tied to lifestyle choices, “the choices we make every day.”
First off, it’s important that older people not put themselves out to pasture. They must actively combat the low expectations our societies have for them. In rapid fire, he issued a set of maxims: “Maintain physical and cognitive function. Continue engagement with life. Minimize risk of diseases and disabilities. Don’t be isolated in your home.”
Specifically, he called on older people to move a lot; engage in quick learning — “not coasting or settling” — to stimulate new neural pathways; maintain a strong social network in order to reduce the risk of major diseases like cancer, diabetes, and dementia; find a role and higher purpose — it can be small or big thing, but we “wither without purpose”; take on a slower pace, avoid clocks, and practice mindfulness to reduce chronic stress; eat a Mediterranean diet; create inter-generational connections, particularly with young kids; laugh a lot, which boosts the immune system; engage in creative pursuits in order to “be in the moment”; and be close to nature.
Many of these life-preserving behaviors have been documented in Dan Buettner’s book Blue Zones: 9 Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who Have Lived the Longest about the “living labs,” the unique communities around the world that have high numbers of incredibly vital 90 and 100-year olds. These communities maintain important features of the lifestyles of our prehistoric hunter-gatherer ancestors. Landry said we make mistakes when we veer too far from ancient wisdom.
As the boomers retire, a new approach, rooted in a less-ageist mindset, is needed. “Can we make acting your age a bad thing? As a society, we must change how we see aging. Age should be irrelevant.”
In the past, there has been “too much human capital warehoused in facilities.” We can’t waste the potential contributions of 76 million aging baby boomers and many millions more around the globe.